Tag Archives: diy

An Irishman in the Suburbs

Remember that project to turn my room at my parents’ house into my dad’s office?

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Yep, they got him to help. Now you might be wondering what they were thinking after all I went through. Are they totally out of their minds? Maybe, but maybe it made sense.

They sold the desk and wanted a counter that runs the length of the room, leaving space for grown-up knees. But the room is 12′-7″ and the longest off-the-shelf wood countertops are 12′. Custom work would cost hundreds of dollars. Ross suggested shifting the closed cabinets in and letting the counter be only 12 feet long. My parents weren’t too keen on this idea. He also suggested rebuilding the shelving to float above the counter instead of sitting on it, and they were keen on that one.

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  1. Building a countertop and bookshelves require either lots of time to do things by trial and error or mad skills.
  2. This job doesn’t require the precision of a work shop (which is where my kitchen cabinet doors went wrong).
  3. And, my dad worked alongside him for the entire day 3 days he spent on the project.

But let’s start at the beginning. First, my dad had to strip one of the two windows to bare wood because an ice dam damaged the paint a few years ago. And he had a harder time getting the wallpaper off than expected.

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At this stage, the room brought back memories of when we first moved here. I was 9 and relieving me of the indignity of a pink bedroom was a high priority, though a flood in the basement knocked it off the very top of the to-do list. (Today pink paint wouldn’t bother me in the least.) And the 20-year-old paint job was surprisingly dingy in what I still thought was a decently nice room. He said a while back that my bedroom (the one in Philadelphia that is) was a cool color and that he’d use the same in his. I still think it’s funny to call a neutral “cool” but maybe that’s just me.

Then an all too familiar sight reappeared. And my “NOT TRASH” sign is still taped on the plastic!

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But the result?

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The important things here: My dad made sketches and imposed organization onto the Irishman. They joined the counter together with a biscuit joiner in the kitchen. My mom wasn’t thrilled about this but it wasn’t messy. They raised the cabinets 3/4″ and will need to install quarter round around the bottom to hide it. And my dad still needs to install the IKEA kitchen drawer he got for under the desk top. The new cabinets are better made than the old ones and spaced to hold reference books and only reference books instead of the mixed library I had when I was 9. Also, is it me or does the design look top heavy?

Bonus: he hung 5 new doors! My parents’ house was built in 1951 with flush doors. Pretty nice ones actually. Then sometime probably in the 80’s someone downgraded most of them to the flimsiest hollow paneled doors I’ve ever seen. Like, if you pressed on them they would squish. My parents have then been replacing them all with new solid pine 6 paneled doors, but the last few were particularly beat. Mainly because my sister and I would try to shove them in each other’s faces and wedge our feet in under them to hold them open and they were starting to come apart. My already had all the replacement doors but they sat in the garage for something like 15 years. So now they’re all up! They just need to be painted. And it might take a bit to get the adhesive residue from 15 year old packaging off.

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Hopefully soon you’ll get to see the room finished.

 

 

Am I a player now?

First there was Tim. He was in the picture for a solid 2 years, and even though I had to put up with a lot of stupid shit I stuck with him. But he left me high and dry when a better option came along. I never gave him his stuff back.

Then there was Ken. The first time he came over was encouraging and I guess that’s why I kept coming back to him after how many times he stood me up. And he never took it upon himself to tell me – I had to sit at home calling him to find out.

So it may have been underhanded of me when I went after Dre, who Ken knows, and got Ken to give me Dre’s number. But, you know, I’m trying to find someone. I took a day off of work partly to meet Dre. We were good to go the night before but then he ghosted on me, just like the others.

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And now there’s John. He stopped answering my calls, too, until I called him from the office. He finally did get back to me and we were supposed to meet. Again, nothing.

I haven’t dumped John yet but I’m already after another guy named John. They don’t have to know about each other. At this point I want to get whatever there is to get from whoever will give it to me. My roommate even knows to leave the door unlocked when John is thinking of coming by.

And if all else fails, there’s one more number I can call and I’ve heard good things. But they’ll charge $75 just for someone to come by before even doing anything. The thought of paying for that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but they’re in the back of my mind in case I ever need it bad enough.

 

But a little good news – I finally found the one! The second John came and got my heat working today!

Yeah, this whole post was about plumbers. What did you think I meant?

But a little bad news. Having given up on professional help, then given up on DIY, then given up on professional help, and so on, my dad and I tried to hook up the thermostats ourselves. What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, we fried the boiler control relay, the damper control, the circulating pump, and all 3 zone valves. I was starting to save money again. That was nice while it lasted. So, a little shocked horror there. But at long last, the Crooked House has functioning central heat. And considering that the boiler was exhausting 3000 parts per million carbon monoxide and the chimney was blocked at the top and had a hole halfway up… well, I’m glad that the small child who used to live here is still alive. And I’m thrilled to finally put away that electric radiator at the bottom of the stairs.

Closing Out the Irish Labor

I bit the bullet and hired the Irishman twice more. Here’s what I have to show for it.

The oak counter next to the stove is in! I plan to sand off the old finish and oil it. (Also, the kitchen is getting tidier)

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The missing chip of wood on the banister has been patched. He then used a fair bit of wood filler while doing the final carving but it should even out with stain.

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The bathroom door has its marble threshold.

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The vestibule door is in! He extended the bottom because the gap was big and he thought it looked stupid. And this door has beveled glass so the photos don’t do it justice.

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The panel sticking on the stairway wall is cut and pushed in place.

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This last one was unexpectedly hard because the saw doesn’t cut the super tight angles we needed. So he clamped blocks of wood to the saw fence.

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And, I no longer need to use a sneaker and a can of paint to keep my bedroom door shut!

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He promised me that on top of all this, he’ll come back an evening and shoot in (meaning use the pneumatic nailer) the panel sticking, finish off the roller ball catch on the linen closet door, and put up the permanent stop moldings on the bedroom, bathroom, and linen closet doors.

So yay! That’s a lot! And I got some things done too but not nearly as much.

I got fed up with the condition of this rocker. I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be keeping it forever but decided it makes sense to get it re-caned regardless.

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So I found a couple that canes chairs from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. They wanted $240! My PTSD is almost gone. I started to plan out a DIY project to rig it with an upholstered seat. But then the low bid came in at $83, and here it is. And that puts it on the short list of most expensive furniture and décor items in the house. Many thanks to my grandmother for having good enough taste that I can be happy with her stuff.

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Then I’ve been doing a fair bit of organizing things now that space is carved out for them. One drawer in the kitchen had more contents than space, but the chest by the front door had room for the reusable shopping bags and that fixed everything. I picked up a few more drawer dividers for the kitchen. It’s the little things right?

And another day of sweeping up sawdust. I thought we were done with that.

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So organizing is a priority right now. So is just basic house work. I’ve been good about the washing my clothes thing but not so much folding them. The wash stand got a new purpose consistent with its name as I stacked the clean unfolded wash ever higher every week.

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So… little things are the new order of business. Cleaning, organizing, prepping to paint everything I didn’t get to before. And painting all the things I left undone. And things that don’t cost anything are all I can afford to do for the next 2 months anyway. That means the blog will be straying off-topic for a while. And the next time you see the Crooked House, it should look a good bit more polished off!

Oh, and I’m excited about the off-topic posts.

The Great Soap Dish Dilemma

I’m taking a break from expensive and time consuming projects, but there are smaller things I should be doing. My roommate has been away for 3 weeks and I promised her that stuff would happen while she was gone. I didn’t follow through. Some of this is dependent on the Irishman, who also promised to help me and didn’t follow through, but the bathroom’s lack of towel bars and other storage items is all on me. The toilet paper sits on the radiator, which doesn’t bother me. Towels hang on the side of this temporary storage cart, which I’m also fine with except that guests never find them.

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It’s in the bathtub thatthings get ugly. All I have is a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo (usually large and inexpensive), and a scrub brush. My roommate has 2 additional bottles. And then I use a clean wash cloth every time I shower and with no place to hang them I let them sit in a nasty pile until laundry day.

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My roommate said she’d like to see all of that stuff go away. Her tone was gentle but that didn’t imply that I was welcome to slack off. But I did, mainly because my search left me disappointed. I want fixtures that are as plain and sleek as possible in shiny chrome at the dry end of the tub away from the shower head. And there’s a slim chance that I’d want storage for just a wee bit more in case someone more high maintenance ever lives here.

Chris suggested a magnetic soap dish like he used in his house, and this idea sounded fantastic. But there’s a problem. There’s a very limited selection of these, and the most sensible ones have a very traditional look that’s wrong for my bathroom. Everything else is either very high end and imported from Europe or looks as cheap as it is. But I could get one from Zack Scala with a look I liked – for about 50 bucks.

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That’s not super cheap but I figured it would be okay and I should get it. But then I was thinking of the other stuff I want that would be on the same wall. It’s one thing to cheat and use cheaper fixtures across the room, but here wouldn’t it look stupid? But getting them to match would cost like $300! And even after spending all that money will it look any good?

And I went back to the alternative, finding a different manufacturer whose product is close enough. But they’re all chrome when this soap dish is polished stainless steel. Polished stainless steel that looks like chrome is apparently not a thing in the US.

I thought when I was planning this project out that marble shelves would stick out like a sore thumb and thought I should get glass. But then I wondered about safety if I broke it. So I considered getting wire shelves. No need for a soap dish that way. But I couldn’t find anything I liked and decided that the risk of breaking a glass shelf (that I like) is pretty small anyway, right? But that takes me back to where I have to order expensive things online and decide if I’m going to hold my nose and spend hundreds of dollars or try to mix different styles of fixtures that I’m buying sight unseen.

So then I decided to ignore the house and wash up to do something fun. And I threw another washcloth on the pile.

A DIY Urn Fountain Tutorial

We’re going back to a time before blogging and progress photos were a thing. Mother’s Day 2011 that is. The photos are from last year’s redo but they get the point across.

My mom had always wanted a small fountain or pond and after considering a few different spots, we decided that a kind of boring slope right next to the patio would be the place to put it. But ponds are too much work and the fountains were far too ornate. I went on the hunt for something massive and multi-tiered with a statue of a naked baby pissing up into the air. Then a neighbor built her own using a nice urn and a hidden underground basin. Yes this is a real person’s garden.

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The great thing about these is you can make them as rustic or as formal as you want. We decided to build the slope up to grade with the patio with a semicircular retaining wall and put the basin in the middle of that new flat area.

To start we needed the wall. I looked at decorative concrete block systems but they’re expensive and not that attractive. In fact, the tops of them don’t look any different than regular old cinder block, and for us, the top would be the only part that showed. I decided to cover it up with one layer of stone, but the stone options at the Home Depot SUCKED. Instead I went to the Media Quarry and got mica schist (or Wissahickon schist) dry stack for only 20 bucks!  So definitely source your stone locally. We also wired up an outlet here.

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So here’s how it goes together. Dig a hole about 6 inches too deep. I used crushed stone “paver base” underneath the basin. Remember to get 3 times as much as you think you need. It’s way better to return the extra than to run out.

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For the basin, a regular pond liner did the job for about 15 dollars. And to size the pump, I bought one that was rated to carry water about twice as high as the urn we got. Pumps will be labeled with a maximum flow rate with minimal change in elevation and a maximum elevation at which you’ll only get a trickle. So go in between. A couple of cinder blocks will hold the urn.

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The urn needs to be shaped so that water will trickle down the sides and not splash out of the basin. We got this one at City Planter in the Northern Liberties and they were nice enough to drill the bottom for the fountain. I plugged the old hole and shoved the rubber hose from the pump through the new one. Then we used whatever was available to shim it level. Slate seemed like a good idea but my dad used wood and it was fine.

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Then, my mom wanted it to gurgle on the surface a little bit, but the stem the fountain came with doesn’t connect with the rubber hose. So I dumped some pea gravel in and just shoved the stem in. This sounds half-assed but it worked. It’s not watertight but what leaks out stays in the urn anyway.

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I backfilled around the basin with more stone and arranged more schist (and an antique frog) it.

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And then regular pond pebbles from the home depot finished it off. Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I made you a giant fermata! (And of course I underestimated the work, so on Mother’s Day this was still just a muddy hole.)

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And here it is with plants. (Seeing them in a photo is a reminder that they’re never really done)

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The Dreaded Post-Construction Clutter

Amid all the odds and ends and this goal to not work too hard on the house, I’ve been chipping away at the dreaded clutter. And there were some pleasant surprises. First, I had some old kitchen cabinets in the basement but decided they won’t be reusable after all. I was ready to drive them out to my parents’ place in the Land of Good Public Services. But luckily for me, the Irishman was cleaning out his basement, too. And he rented a very large dump truck and loaded it up. And now my stuff is gone, baby, gone! This also marks the first time, I believe, that there is absolutely no scrap wood or scaffolding anywhere in the back yard. I still do have a big pile of Belgian blocks in the alley but they can stay.

Then there were lots of boxes to go through. But it turns out most of those were half empty. And half of what was in them was construction detritus. I found broken trim pieces from the old recessed lights, small strips of bathroom floor tile that were cut off, and of course lots of dirt. I also finally found the roller ball catch for the linen closet door! I was not willing to buy this again since I knew it was down there, so now I’m finally free to make all the interior doors operable

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(If you forgot, I put a dummy knob on this door because it’s too thin for a mortise lock. At one time it had a latch more like a cabinet door.)

And this is now all that’s left in my big dumping ground under the kitchen. Trust me, it’s progress.

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And the same thing happened in my bedroom and the bookshelves in the living room. I’ve passed Peak Box and shedding cardboard fast.

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But there is a downside to all this. The bookshelves are much tidier, yes. But what’s left on them is morphing into the physical manifestation of a to-do list. There are hinges for the doors that aren’t hung, missing pieces to the kitchen drawers, rolls of non-slip shelf paper, laminate adhesive… but I’m loving being able to put these jobs off.

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Of all the random junk sitting out, I started with instant gratification. I owe Mary Elizabeth a big thank you for mailing me curtains for the only room that’s ready for them, the one that I don’t use.

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And I’ve finally hung up the bathroom mirror. This was probably the most pathetic thing to hold off on, but apparently I found it less aggravating to sit on the floor to shave than to put 2 screws in the wall. It’s kinda junky thermofoil over particle board and didn’t hold up very well to being stored in the basement through demolition but I’m thinking of painting it a fun color to spruce it up until the Phase 2 bathroom work happens. Whadaya think? Maybe not worth the trouble since it’s going in 2 years.

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And I hung up “Ne buvez jamais d’eau,” which was easily the best piece of artwork in my grandmother’s house. I thought it was too small for this wall but it’s actually fine. You can kinda see the scale in the photo above.

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This concludes Phase 1

And I didn’t even notice!

Which is funny because I’ve been fixated on the end for a solid 3 years now. And it was 3 years of scope bloat. At first it was the things I needed to make the place safe, like this chimney. (This is behind my bookcases in April 2014)

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To the “while we’re at it” jobs that couldn’t feasibly happen later, like moving the bathroom.

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To the surprise problems I couldn’t fix later, like the water behind this stucco. It was at least not getting behind the asphalt.

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The messy things I wanted over with, like the patio door.

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And the things that seemed unnecessary until I was living without them, like kitchen storage. (The oak chopping block on top of this cabinet has been deferred beyond Phase 1.)

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Even with the washer and dryer it didn’t really feel finished. So how do I know it’s over? Because I went away for the weekend and my social calendar filled up every evening but one this week. Normally, there’d be something I wanted to do to the house and knowing that I was even slower would make me grumpy.

As far as actual work goes, it’s been only little things. My bedroom door has been down for a while. I was going to paint the jamb and install vintage hardware and all that. You know door hardware is my favorite. But after that got held up I just hung it back up again as it was and felt great about it. The only real house progress was the furniture and pretty things on this wall. Well, that and polishing silver.

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That dresser was in my grandmother’s childhood home and the mirror was in her living room. The mirror always looked really, really formal in her house and I thought it would be too much for me, but I love it. And I got the bust because I used to be afraid of one just like it at my friend’s house when I was little. The Irishman’s kids haven’t seen it yet.

And otherwise, I’m working on putting life before the house. On Tuesday I threw together a small dinner – this kind of thing is why I have a house at all instead of a studio apartment.

And I’m starting to get used to regular cleaning. Not shoveling up debris, the normal people kind. And I went to a neighborhood tree planting today after 3 years of no volunteer work.

So while I’m not doing house work, I have some other stuff that I’m looking forward to writing about. I think it’s time to put together a proper little tour of my little house. Then there’s the house hunt, stuff about the neighborhood and city, past and current projects for my family (because you know I owe my parents forever and ever), and other fun stuff.  There are little projects to do during the “break” and loads of clutter – moving my grandmother and dealing with her stuff is unfinished business. There’s so much more of it after my sister and I got what we wanted. And it’s never too early to plan out Phase 2. I’ve had ideas in my head and can’t wait to write them down. Stay tuned!